I love returns.
The nerd half of me (okay, it’s closer to 75%) is a huge fan of both The Return of the King and Return of the Jedi. I take great pleasure in receiving my tax return before I promptly spend it on something I undoubtedly don’t need. Like anyone else, I obviously love the return trip home after a long day’s work!
Unfortunately, the NFL doesn’t feel the same. During the 2011 offseason, league officials decided to move the location of the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line, because kickoffs were deemed unsafe. This would theoretically lead to fewer returns, which would presumably limit the high-impact collisions which kickoffs tend to generate. Of course this quest for safety didn’t preclude the league from using replacement referees for the first three games of 2012, or prompt them to permanently shut the door on the possibility of an 18-game season, but those are discussions for another time!
Why is this relevant to how you manage your fantasy team? For starters, many leagues merge defense and special teams into one position. It’s easy to gloss over the significance of the rule change until you realize a Devin Hester kickoff return touchdown could give you the points needed to pull off a tight win. More importantly, certain leagues reward individual players for kickoff return yards and touchdowns. While usually these bonuses are meager when compared proportionately to other means of scoring, they are certainly far from negligible.
With a full year’s worth of data, trends caused by the kickoff reform can now be observed and examined. This analysis will explore the general impact of the rule change, as well as what it means to some prominent return-men who have “survived” the adjustment. Finally, some up-and-coming younger players will be highlighted in an attempt to elucidate how returning kickoffs will impact their respective future values.
The simplest place to start is to compare kickoffs in the years immediately preceding and following the rule change. This data (c/o ESPN.com and NFL.com) takes into account statistics from all kickers, as well as the top ten kickoff returners (by total yards). The green numbers reflect a positive change, while the red numbers show a negative variation.
Of immediate note is the near three-fold increase in the amount of touchbacks. In 2010, the Ravens’ Billy Cundiff set a league record for touchbacks with 40, a total which was bettered by a startling eleven kickers in 2011. Poor Billy, if only there was some other kicking-related incident you could now be (in)famous for!
As could be anticipated, both the number of returns as well as the total return yards decreased, by about 27% apiece. The average length of return was relatively unchanged, which logically follows the presumption that a returnable kick is a returnable kick, regardless of the point of kickoff. Finally, return touchdowns decreased by 61%, which is roughly the magnitude of the shift in touchbacks.
While the above data helps paint a grand picture, it’s also useful to look at a few individual portraits. There are a couple of players who are already locked into our starting lineups, and the fact that they return kicks is just the cherry on top of their statistical sundaes. Two examples are the Vikings’ Percy Harvin and the Saints’ Darren Sproles. While they still offer consequential upside in the return game, even they were not immune to the fallout of league’s kickoff directive.
Starting with Harvin (and conveniently ignoring his kickoff return touchdown this past weekend), you can see a dramatic decrease in his kickoff usage between 2010 and 2011. The amount of his returns decreased by 60%, and that’s not even taking into account an injury which cost him two games in 2010! While he somewhat mitigated the precipitous drop in return volume with a stellar 40% increase in the length of his average return, Harvin still barely managed half of his 2010 total return yardage.
Sproles likewise saw a downtick in return production, but it wasn’t nearly as pronounced. This can be explained somewhat by the fact that the Saints defense gave up two more points per game in 2011 than they did in 2010, affording a few more chances for kickoff returns. Regardless, while Sproles was affected by the rule change, it was clearly less than the rest of the league, and he is still a top-three return man thus far in 2012.
What we can glean from this data is that while Harvin and Sproles still maintain return value, it’s not quite what it once was. Owners in leagues who award bonuses to returners should take note of this and how it affects their respective trade values. Though Harvin and Sproles are great position players regardless of return ability, savvy owners looking to deal might want to take advantage of their less-informed peers. Conversely, owners looking to trade for Harvin or Sproles need to know that they can no longer count on their 2010 levels of return production.
Harvin and Sproles are the most useful examples for this analysis, but there are other young players who are looking to parlay impactful special teams play into larger offensive roles. Some names to be mindful of are Randall Cobb, David Wilson and Kendall Hunter. Deep league owners should keep their eyes on Joe Adams and Deonte Thompson, while those in IDP leagues should make note of Devin McCourty. These are some of the players who could offer a “dual-threat” presence in your starting lineup once they truly carve out full-time roles.
The NFL wanted to drastically reduce the significance of kickoff returns and the data shows they succeeded. Whether or not you agree with their decision, it’s important to understand the ramifications. Owners in leagues where the return game leaves an appreciable imprint on weekly box scores can no longer expect the same type of statistical elevation. Trade values need to be adjusted accordingly, as do expectations. After all, better understanding the role of the kickoff can ultimately help your team be victorious!
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